Friday, March 18, 2016

Cuba 2016: Getting There And Day One

The first of our two trips this year was to the Island of Cuba.  This was one of the shortest distance we've ever traveled for an international vacation but, relatively speaking, it was also the longest.  It takes about five hours and forty-five minutes to fly from Omaha to Havana, Cuba.  Despite this short flight time it took twenty-four hours to get there thanks mainly to the embargo.

Cuba has been embargoed by the USA since the Kennedy administration.  Because of this it has been illegal for Americans to travel to Cuba.  In 2015 the Obama administration loosened restrictions allowing so called "people to people" exchanges.  This allowed Americans to travel to Cuba for educational exchanges.  A limited number of travel companies were approved by the US state department to organize these "people to people" tours.  It turns out that the tour company that we have used ever since our first big international trip (Peru) was one of those approved travel companies.

The first day of our trip started with a flight to Miami (via Chicago).  Currently the only flights going to Cuba from the US are charter flights out of Miami.  This will change soon as the state department and Cuba have approved commercial airlines to fly to Cuba from many American airports.  Commercial flights will start later in the Fall.

In Miami we met with the other twenty people traveling with us.  At twenty-two this was the largest tour group we'd ever traveled with.  While the group skewed older, there was still a good mix of people and all of them were travellers.  A representative of Insight Cuba (The Cuban tour company that subcontracts with our tour company) gave us a briefing about what was going to happen the next day and provided, largely inaccurate, information about our tour.  Things changed a lot and very fast in Cuba.  The best motto to apply to our trip would be "Everything is subject to change."

The sun sets over Miami - taken from our hotel room.

Day One - Too much to fit in with too few hours of sleep.

We had to leave to go to the airport at 4:30AM so we set a wake up call for 3:30AM.  The wake up call rang at 2:30AM (AAAAAHHHH).  I called the front desk to confirm the incorrect time and to make sure he was as awake as I was.  I did manage to get another half hour of sleep before we really had to get up.

We shuttled to the Miami airport - an airport that felt like a third world airport -  and proceeded to wait in lines.  The lines are long because many Cuban travelers take a crap ton of things with them to give to their families.  The flight to Cuba has weight restrictions because of this.  Our tour leader in Miami did manage to expedite things a bit and we were able to avoid some of the longer lines.

The flight was a short forty-five minutes.  As we taxied to the terminal we saw a US Air Force plane on the tarmac - part of President Obama's advance team we assumed.  We flew through customs.  I expected more questions and hassles but I was only asked a couple simple questions about why I was in Cuba.  The customs officer stamped my entrance on page sixteen of my empty passport (it was brand new and she stamped in the middle of the passport ... sigh).

We collected our one checked bag and met our Insight Cuba rep (Gm).  While we waited for others to get through customs I changed some money (Cuban currency can only be changed in Cuba).  This would be a cash only tour as US credit cards aren't accepted in Cuba thanks to the embargo.  We boarded our bus and met our Cuban guide (Ro).  Either Ro, Gm, or both would be with us most of the time.  While this sounds like they were "minding" us, I'm pretty sure they weren't.  We were encouraged many times to wander around on our own during any free time we had.  Gm would be our fixer and he would help us organize any extra activities we were interested in doing.  He was also a medical student and his services would be needed when one of our tour mates tore all the ligaments in her right ankle.

An example of the old houses of Havana.
Our first stop was a gallery of a painter/photographer.  The bus driver couldn't get the big bus close because of the untrimmed trees and construction near the artist's home so we got off the bus a couple blocks away near a park and walked.  This gave us a good chance to see the magnificent old houses that were in various stages of decay and restoration.  Many of the grander houses had been built by American mobsters before the revolution.  At the house/gallery of the painter we learned about the vibrant art scene and met with the artist.

Our mark outside of La Bodeguita del Medio in Old Havana.
Next stop was old Havana for lunch.  Just down a side street from Cathedral Plaza we waited in line to get into the La Bodeguita del Medio, a bar/restaurant frequented by Ernest Hemingway - he was fond of the bar's mojitos.  As we waited the Wife added to the graffiti that covered the walls - both inside and out - of the bar.

Serenaded at La Bodeguita del Medio.
We finally got in and had a very satisfying lunch.  Everyone - our travel agent in Omaha, the rep in Miami, and both of our guides - warned us that the food would not be very good in Cuba.  I'm not exactly sure what they were talking about.  Most of the food we ate was very good.  Not all of it was to my taste but that was more a 'Me' issue than a Cuban food issue.  The ice cream that was served after many meals was a nice bonus.

After lunch we visited a lithograph place and met the artists who carved the plates.  I almost bought a small one but the $25 cost of the rather small print seemed too steep.  Not sure if that was a wise decision or not ...

A dancer in el Callejón de Hamel.
Next stop was the Callejón de Hamel, a magnificently graffitied alleyway where we learned about the African roots of Santería and visited an artist gallery.  We were entertained and educated by a demonstration of african/santería dancers.  Cuba is a surprisingly religious place for a 'communist' country.

Last stop for the afternoon was an artist who worked in ceramic.  By the time we got to her house we were all dragging a bit.  Her art was interesting and provocative but what attracted my attention was a small wind chime with the animal pictographs from the Nazca plain.  By a strange coincidence we had been talking about the Nazca lines with one of our tour mates at lunch.

We checked into the hotel and went to our rooms.  Our room key didn't work so I went down to the front desk.  They reprogrammed the key.  It did work again.  Third time reprogrammed and  ... still didn't work.  The fourth time at the front desk they sent someone up with me.  He flourished the key as if saying "Watch me you American simpleton as I demonstrate the use of the key card."  He inserted the key and the red light came on and his smug smile disappeared, he became slightly apologetic, and he let us in the room with his personal master key.  The lock was fixed a few hours later.

Once I stopped wasting time trying to get into the room I showered and tried to take a nap.  While it made me feel better I was still dragging a bit a couple hours later when we all got back on the bus to go out for dinner.

The restaurant was a nice restaurant (El Figaro in the Barber district ... get it?  Figaro ... Barber?) but it was a bit too fancy for my tastes.  The serrano ham appetizer took me back to the Camino, I didn't really enjoy my chicken in mushroom white wine sauce (having said this I cleaned my plate), and the ice cream over flan for dessert was disappointing - I don't care much for flan.  There was a surprise for us at the end but it turned out to be a rum tasting which, since I don't drink alcohol, I didn't participate in.

By the time we got back to the hotel I was totally exhausted and both the Wife and I slept like the dead.

Pictures can be found in my 2016-03 Cuba 2016 Google Photos album.

To be continued ...

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